Personal Luxuries

First person present

Lucia van der Post tracks down artists merging timeless craftsmanship with boundless imagination to create heirlooms that are unique and deeply personal

December 14 2012
Lucia van der Post

Christmas and the matter of presents are inextricably intertwined. And while there are lots of charming things that will give pleasure – a fine bottle of claret, a good book, something that smells divine – they aren’t the stuff of memories, and are unlikely to feature in your will. Sometimes what we are looking for is something much more special – a gift with a different level of meaning. As Deyan Sudjic, the director of the Design Museum, recently put it, “We have an emotional need to pass things on. We remember our grandparents and parents through the things that they leave us. And we want our children to do the same. Yet the range of objects left to pass on is dwindling as digitalisation takes over – a sharp reminder of what objects once meant, and what we forlornly hope they still might be.” He then refers touchingly to his father’s typewriter, which went to the Nuremberg war trials and back, and how much being given that meant to him.

We all, I think, can identify with Sudjic’s words, and for important occasions we seek out something utterly memorable to give. This usually means it has to be bespoke. Happily, as the digital world has invaded more of our lives, so there’s been a newly awakened sense of delight in things that are handmade. Mostly it is craftsmen-cum-artists who create these pieces since most of what they make is unique. If you chance upon work you love, you will almost certainly be able to persuade the artist to make a bespoke piece.

Take Annabel Johnson, better known as a ceramicist working under the name Miss Annabel Dee. She does all her own mould-making, slip-casting and decorating, using photographs, illustrations, computer-generated images and pen-and-ink drawings to create items that have a personal narrative. I first saw her work in Number 10 Downing Street, for which she had created a large ceramic pot, on the outside of which much of the story of the prime minister’s house was told through pictures and old photographs. The chairman of Sotheby’s, Robin Woodhead, so loved her work that he commissioned a piece for a friend’s 50th birthday party. On a base of white earthenware she used digital decals, surface relief and lustre to reproduce the friend’s house, gardens and other precious things. As a wedding present for a friend of her own, Johnson designed a pot with images recalling the wedding and the honeymoon. Prices start at around £600 for bespoke pieces.

Then there’s Based Upon, founded by twins Ian and Richard Abell, who work with liquid metals and resins, which they use to create bespoke wall panels, doors and pieces of furniture. They’ve made pieces for the Candy brothers’ One Hyde Park, done a series of lift doors for The Corinthia hotel, and produced lots of other private projects for anonymous customers. The company was founded to meet the need for completely individual designs, which the Abells define as “works rich in significance, narrative and provenance”. Ian, the creative force behind the brand, takes the customer through their own personal journey, asking what is special to him or her, and then incorporates aspects of these objects, events and memories into a bespoke design. Based Upon calls them legacy pieces. The best example is a panel Ian made for himself, which celebrates him falling in love, getting married and having his first child. The panel includes a scan of his child in the womb, the lines on the hand of his newborn daughter, and flowers and other objects that are important to him and his wife. This piece functions solely as a work of art, but the same process can be used to make table-tops, which cost £12,000, or wall panels, starting at around £20,000.

Annoushka Ducas, who founded Links of London with her husband John Ayton and now runs the jewellery company Annoushka, wanted something special for her husband’s 50th birthday. She commissioned Alexandra Llewellyn to make a personalised backgammon set. Every part of the set incorporated an element of his life story, such as his school motto, the emblem for Teddy Hall (his Oxford college), his passion for triathlons, the date he and Annoushka met, where they got married, their houses, and their children’s dates of birth. Each child wrote a small note to their father, which was embossed onto leather compartments, while discs were laser-engraved with images of places where they’d been together. “John was utterly thrilled with it,” says Annoushka. “It is always out, ready to be played. It’s really a family history in a box.” Prices start at £4,600.  

Denis Brown, meanwhile, is an Irish calligrapher who etches his writings into glass. For one spectacular ongoing series, A Thousand Wishes, he has asked people to email wishes to him, which he etches into his work, layering words over words so that the wishes remain mostly secret. They are then encoded into images of a dandelion, resulting in mysterious-looking artworks. Brown takes private commissions and will incorporate personal messages or poems into pieces of glass art. A framed wall-hanging picture measuring 42sq cm costs €650.

Another master engraver, Sean Egan, who trained in the old Waterford Crystal factory, produces figurative work that is hand-etched on glass with a copper wheel. Egan became famous when he took some 200 hours to create an image of Father Mychal Judge, the chaplain to the New York fire department, being carried out of the rubble of the World Trade Centre on September 11. He did it in his own time, entirely out of a personal wish to commemorate the tragedy, but an American fireman visiting Waterford saw it and arranged for it to come to New York. Waterford then commissioned him to do a larger version, which is now displayed in the fire house on 31st Street in New York. On his website, Egan features a range of crystal pieces, onto which he can engrave exquisite images, such as a house, a pet, or a narrative illustrating a life-story or important event. He has just made a piece for a couple who married late in life. They love camping, and so he designed an image of a 1970s-style Volkswagen camper van with them cooking at a fire beside it. Prices start at about €350 for an engraving on a piece of crystal.

Of course, personalised artwork can take many forms. Candace Bahouth, whose wonderfully kitsch commemoration mirrors we featured earlier in the year (see, makes a speciality of crafting what she calls “assemblages”. They are quite often commissioned as wedding or birthday presents. She takes mementos from the recipient’s life – buttons, theatre tickets, pictures, shells, stamps, dried flowers, photographs, bits of lace or china, poems – and creates a beautiful and unique collage, which she puts into a decorative cardboard frame. The result is an enchanting picture that is a reminder of a life lived and times gone by. She charges from £500 for a framed piece measuring 26 by 21 inches.  

Pieces of silver are obvious candidates for a special gift. Rupert Hambro, chairman of JO Hambro, for instance, commissioned the renowned silversmith Jocelyn Burton to make a set of claret glasses with silver stems; on each stem she was asked to incorporate some aspect of his life and that of his wife, Robin. Burton’s prices vary depending upon the brief, though similar glasses would start from £4,500 each. Among the younger generation there is Mary Ann Simmons, who uses an etching technique that enables her to transfer anything from a letter to a birth certificate, a recipe or a poem onto silver. One of Simmons’s recent projects was for Amanda Stucklin, who looks after the communications for The Goldsmiths’ Company. Together with her mother and siblings, Stucklin wanted something unique for her father’s 70th birthday, so they wrote messages to him on pieces of paper, which Simmons transferred onto a silver box. “Today it sits on my father’s desk,” says Stucklin. “We could, if we’d wanted to, have been more imaginative and asked for references to other aspects of his life to be included.” Small boxes start at around £600, large ones cost up to £2,000.

Tamar de Vries Winter is another artist who works with precious metals – along with copper and steel – using digital technology and printing techniques to fuse photographic images in the form of enamel transfers onto her objects. As a bespoke gift, she can create enamelled silver shapes, each of which feature old tinted photographs that relate to some aspect of a family’s history; these charms can then be attached to a ring or bracelet – rather like a more sophisticated take on the old-fashioned locket. A commissioned silver bracelet starts at £600, a small bowl at around £1,650.

For an equally individual take on accessories, there’s Vicki Ambery-Smith, a jeweller who has a passion for architecture. She makes small-scale buildings or bridges into rings, pendants or brooches, specialising in celebratory or commemorative pieces that capture the client’s love and affection for a particular place. A simple ring featuring a single building costs about £800, a ring with a cityscape is around £3,000, cuff links featuring a couple of buildings are about £300, while boxes start at £1,500.  

Enamel work is another striking option for a commemorative piece, and Fred Rich is an acknowledged master of the art form. He’s often asked to create items for racehorse owners, or as retirement presents, but one of his favourite commissions was to produce a tea service enamelled with the scene of a tea-dance featuring all the members of one family. He is also happy to do something more narrative, incorporating many events from a particular life. A beaker starts at around £10,000, a brooch at £8,000 and a small vase at £15,000, while candlesticks cost from £25,000.

Then, of course, there is always the special book. Balthazar Fabricius, who runs Fitzdares, the Goldsmith‑backed bookmakers, wanted something original to commemorate his father Rod’s 40th year in racing (Rod has managed Goodwood racing for many years). “I decided that I would present him with the first edition of a collection of reflections from people he has worked closely with,” he says. Fabricius had some wonderful archive documents that he thought would “make for a truly fitting overview”; the result is a charming anthology of letters, photographs, newspaper cuttings and other memorabilia. Produced by The Good Company, a bridle leather-bound edition of 30 cost £500 per book.

These, then, are just a few of the craftsmen and women who love nothing more than using their skills and their imagination to come up with something truly memorable. Admittedly, it would be hard to have something created in time for this Christmas – but you could, perhaps, start planning for the years ahead.